While crime on the tourist strip is trending down the city says more resources are still needed.

On a recent night in Waikiki, a dozen people lounged at a row of concrete picnic tables in Kuhio Beach Park. A man rolled a joint, and another asked where he could charge his phone. The people declined to give their names and cut the conversation short, worried about looking suspicious to others and to the police.

But there were no police in sight, although the local substation was a short walk up the beach. Instead, a golf cart soon came down the sidewalk from the station, carrying two men in black polo shirts that read “ML Security.”

They work for the Matt Levi Corp., to which the City and County of Honolulu recently awarded a no-bid security services contract paid for with $450,000 in federal post-pandemic recovery funds.

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Two private security guards from the Matt Levi Corp. sit in a golf cart parked by the Honolulu Police Department’s Waikiki station. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“It’s a manpower issue,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said. “We had a lot of complaints from that end of the beach.”

“We talked about it for months,” but the threat to public safety was so urgent there wasn’t time to consider bids from other security companies, Blangiardi said.

The extra patrols, about two pairs of two guards on duty from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., come as the Honolulu Police Department says it is understaffed and plans to roll out a three-day, 13-hour work schedule in August.

The men declined to give their names and referred a reporter to Matt Levi’s office. Reached by phone, Levi declined to comment.

They explained that their task requires talking to people they deem suspicious, showing them it’s “in their best interest” to leave, and clearing the beach park when it closes at midnight. The city recently started closing Kuhio Beach Park two hours earlier, in line with nearby Kapiolani Park.

“Our specialty is that we’re trained in law enforcement,” the driver said. “Verbal judo. We can talk story with them.”

Both men said they were off-duty HPD officers and didn’t wear a badge or gun. They declined to say how much they were being paid.

A city notice said that the majority of Levi’s staff are current or former members of HPD’s “elite” Crime Reduction Unit or “other specialized units.” 

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The private security guards are current or retired HPD officers and are active near the Waikiki substation. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Although crime in Waikiki has decreased since last year, the mayor holds that extra patrols are necessary to keep the area safe. The city tried to increase the police presence there, but “that wasn’t quite enough,” he said.

HPD typically has 10 officers on duty in Waikiki each shift, plus supplemental officers from other units, and that number has remained “relatively consistent over time,” HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu said.

Blangiardi chose the Matt Levi Corp. without taking other bids because he “felt that they were very effective,” he said.

“This is what we call a specialized security task force,” Honolulu Managing Director Mike Formby said.

“We’ve been listening now for two and a half years to the community tell us we need to take control of public safety in Waikiki, we needed to move urgently,” Formby said. “We knew there was a contractor available that could provide the men to get the job done.”

The mayor’s office requested an exemption from competitive bidding, posting a notice in May for seven days, Blangiardi spokesperson Ian Scheuring said, and no one contested it.

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The city has hired private security guards to make up for a shortage of police officers in Waikiki. The focus of their efforts will be relatively narrow. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Officers are often responding to 911 calls and don’t have time to walk the beat, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said. “These guys with Matt Levi Security have a real narrow mission, and that’s walking along that area from the Moana to the wall.”

The guards don’t have police powers, so they take up other duties, like answering tourists’ questions and telling them where not to go. “They’re more to deter and prevent anything from happening,” Blangiardi said.

Blangiardi was impressed with Levi’s work cleaning up other parts of the city for private companies, so he figured he’d give him a shot, he said. “I’ve known Matt for many, many years.”

The city had tried to fill a policing shortage with federal post-pandemic recovery funds before, paying officers to work partial overtime shifts in Chinatown, but it wasn’t sustainable for personnel, Formby said.

The $450,000 for the contract couldn’t have been used by HPD to hire more officers for the area, though they already have the budget to do so, Formby said. “There’s no connection there.”

When the contract expires Nov. 30, the city will have to decide what’s next for this stretch of Waikiki.

“We’re going to try to evaluate it,” Blangiardi said. “You create the future a day at a time.” 

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